Understanding the System of Rank
In Tae Kwon Do, character development, fortitude, tenacity, and technique are graded as well as individual capacity. The promotional scale is divided into nineteen ranks - 10 grades (Gups) and nine degrees (Dans). The student begins with tenth gup, the lowest, and ends at first gup; moving on to first dan and ending with the ultimate ninth dan.
There is, of course, a certain significance in the numbering system. With dans, the number 9 is not only the highest among one digit numbers, but also is the number 3 multiplied by 3. In the Orient, 3 is the most esteemed of all the numbers. The Chinese character '3' contains three lines: the upper line symbolizing heaven; the middle line, mortals; and the bottom line, earth.
It was believed that the individual who was successful in promoting his country, fellowmen and God, and able to reach an accord with all three would aspire to become King. The Chinese character for 3 and King are nearly synonymous. So when the number three is multiplied by itself, the equation is nine, the highest of the high; therefore, ninth dan is the highest of the high ranking belts.
Taking the use of the number three one step further, the dans are divided into three distinct classes. First through third is considered the novice stages of black belt. Students are still beginners in comparison to the higher degrees. At fourth dan, the student enters the expert class. Seventh through ninth is composed of Tae Kwon Do masters, the elite who fully understand all the particulars of Tae Kwon Do, mental and physical.
It is also interesting to note that when the numeral 9 is multiplied by any other single digit number and the resulting figures are added together, the answer always equals 9, i.e. 9x1=9; 9x2=18, 1+8=9 and so on up to 9x9=81, 8+1=9. Since this is the only single digit number having this property, it again points to the number 9 as being the most positive of figures.
There is perhaps one question that remains; why begin with the lowest of the two digit numbers '10'? Why not begin with the lowest one digit number and proceed from first gup to ninth gup and then begin again for degrees? Though it would certainly be more logical, the 10-1 and 1-10 numerical system in the Orient is ageless. It would be impossible and impertinent to change a practice that is even carried into children's games!